Heroes

Heroes: Mortals and Monsters, Quests and AdventuresHeroes: Mortals and Monsters, Quests and Adventures
by Stephen Fry
Rating: ★★★★★
Publication Date: November 1, 2018
Pages: 462
Genre: Mythology
Publisher: Penguin / Michael Joseph

 

Well, with the lockdowns, it took me not quite 6 months to finish this on audio (I can only listen in the car), but I finally did it.  It was, of course, worth every minute, and I’d recommend the audio version to anybody who even wants to like Greek mythology.  Especially those who want to like it, but always struggled with the names, and the who begat whoms, and the who married whoms.  Fry unapologetically tells the listener to ignore all of that – there won’t be a test at the end – and just enjoy the stories.  His narration makes this all the easier, as he’s absolutely brilliant at it, even if the Greeks are speaking with Scottish, English and at one point what I think was a distinctly cockney accent.  In fact, the hint of Monty Python in some of the stories made them all the more enjoyable for me, because they made me chuckle.

I’ve never been all that interested in the Trojan War, but I’m sorely tempted to check out his version with the next book in this ‘series’.

Synchronized Sorcery (Witchcraft Mystery, #11)

Synchronized SorcerySynchronized Sorcery
by Juliet Blackwell
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9780593097953
Series: Witchcraft Mystery #11
Publication Date: July 6, 2021
Pages: 335
Genre: Mystery
Publisher: Berkley

Strange things are happening in Lily Ivory’s San Francisco. First, she finds a vintage mermaid costume which dates from the 1939 San Francisco’s Treasure Island World’s Fair – and which gives off distinctly peculiar vibrations. Next, she stumbles upon a dead man in the office of her predecessor, and as the community’s new leader, she feels compelled to track down the culprit. Just when Lily thinks things can’t get any stranger, a man appears claiming to be her half-brother, spouting ideas about the mystical prophecy involving San Francisco and their family…

When the dead man is linked to the mysterious mermaid costume, and then yet another victim is found on Treasure Island, Lily uncovers ties between the long-ago World’s fair and the current murders, and begins to wonder whether the killer might be hiding in plain sight. But unless Lily can figure everything out in time, there may be yet another body floating in San Francisco Bay.


 

I don’t know if this just wasn’t one of her best ones, or I just wasn’t feeling it.  Things at work have been pretty damn dismal the last couple of weeks, so it’s entirely possible it was just my sour mood colouring my enjoyment of a normally favorite series.  But there was a little something; some slowness, or lack of focus, to the plot, that kept me from really losing myself in it.  And her familiar was acting like a spoiled brat throughout the book, something that at the best of times I have no patience with.

But still, probably more me than the book.

The Cats Came Back (Magical Cats Mystery, #10)

The Cats Came BackThe Cats Came Back
by Sofie Kelly
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9780399584596
Series: Magical Cats Mystery #10
Publication Date: January 1, 2018
Pages: 294
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Berkley

 

This is an adorably fun series about two magical cats and a likeable group of humans, but this entry was very average for me, mainly because I anticipated every plot development and who the murderer was well before it’s reasonable to have guessed.

That’s pretty much all I’ve got to say – it’s not a bad read, it just wasn’t as cleverly plotted as others in the series.

Darjeeling: A History of the World’s Greatest Tea

Darjeeling: A History of the World's Greatest TeaDarjeeling: A History of the World's Greatest Tea
by Jeff Koehler
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781408845929
Publication Date: January 1, 2015
Pages: 291
Genre: History, Non-fiction, Plants / Agriculture
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing

Set against the backdrop of the looming Himalayas and drenching monsoons, this is the story of how Darjeeling developed its tea industry under Imperial British rule and eventually came to produce the world's finest leaves. But today the industry is battling dropping production ,a violent struggle for independent statehood, labour unrest and the devastating effect of climate change. It's the story, too, of the measures being taken to counter these challenges and save India's most exclusive and iconic brew that are nothing short of radical.

A fascinating portrait of the region and a story rich in intrigue and empire, full of adventurers and romance, it illuminates the historic, arcane and changing world of this celebrated tea.

Winner of the 2016 IACP Award: Literary Food Writing


Finished this last night and it was a solid 4 star read for me.  It might have been 4.5 save for a dull chapter or two on the colonial history between India and Great Britain.  Lots of names, dates, and skirmishes, with back-and-forths between time periods that just made my eyes glaze over.  But at 19 chapters, the book had plenty of chapters to make it up to me, and it mostly did.

Written in a ‘feature article’ style, the author frames the book and its chapters within the tea-picking seasons, called flushes.  Spring flush, second flush, monsoon flush and autumn flush, tying the trajectory Darjeeling tea finds itself into the advancement of the seasons. These ‘preludes’ to the chapters are written in a flowery, evocative style that mostly works, although at times seems to try a tiny bit too hard.

In general terms the book set out what it meant to do: educate me about tea.  As someone whose circulatory system is, at any given time, roughly 75% tea, I was shockingly ignorant about my life’s blood, so the book was destined to succeed.  I knew nothing about CTC vs. orthodox teas (CTC is the mechanical process of cut, tear, curl, while orthodox tea is still almost entirely hand processes) and while I’d heard of Darjeeling tea, of course, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you it’s considered the world’s best tea, or that the vast majority of it is certified organic.  The importance when it’s picked has on its taste is also going to make it easier for me to find my go-to black teas; I’m pretty sure I’m a solid spring-flush kind of girl.

But what the author really succeeded in, was convincing me of the inherent romance surrounding the growing of teas in spite of all the challenges and barriers: the climate changes, labor issues and a fraught political climate in West Bengal. He touches on all of them in some depth, describing the ways owners are tackling the first two issues and trying to survive the fall out of the third, but still, it’s almost impossible not to imagine these tea gardens as romantic.

If nothing else, the book succeeded as a marketing tool: midway through I found myself online ordering 100g of a tea called “Gold Darjeeling” described by the Tao of Tea as a Light Black Tea, with a smooth, buttery, honey texture. Full-bodied brew with pleasant rose, muscatel grape-like aroma.  I’m off two minds about my hopes for this tea: of course I want to like it, but given that you can only buy it by the gram, not so much that it ruins me for all the other black teas out there.  Although, as long as I drink iced tea, I doubt I’m in any real danger of becoming the tea snob.

Death by Committee (Abby McCree Mystery, #1)

Death by CommitteeDeath by Committee
by Alexis Morgan
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781496719539
Series: Abby McCree Mystery #1
Publication Date: January 29, 2019
Pages: 282
Genre: Mystery
Publisher: Kensington

 

Meh.

Several decades ago, when I started reading cozies, they were actually good; well written and well plotted puzzles that didn’t involve the grimy underbelly of society or graphic violence (the gory kind).

They’re still puzzles that don’t involve the grimy underbelly of society or graphic violence (the gory kind), but somewhere along the way – about a decade ago – publishers turned them into a commodity to be standardised; they created a formula for maximum efficiency and higher returns via quantity.  And they seemed to have completely done away with quality.

This is starting to piss me off, because as much as I enjoy a good vintage cozy/traditional mystery, sometimes I want a good cozy/traditional set in my own time, and I’m dammed if I can find one anymore (and by this, I mean new series, not the good ones that have lasted).

I thought Death by Committee had potential at the beginning, but by the halfway mark it became clear that the author (or her editor) was falling into the standard equation, and not only following formula in plotting, because sometimes there’s no escaping those tropes that work, but following a worn out formula for her characters too.  The current fad seems to be a middle aged woman riding heard on a band of hyperactive seniors.  Sophie Kelly makes this work with her series, but Morgan does not.  The seniors were flat and took advantage of the MC.  The MC’s righteous indignation failed to feel righteous, and the MC’s romantic interest failed to seem like anyone other than someone with a mood disorder.

The highlight of the book was the MC’s mastiff-mix, Zeke.

Editing was subpar, with several dropped time-lines (a memorable one is where the MC and her romantic interest make plans to meet for dinner that night and it never happens – the entire scene just disappeared).

It’s morning here as I write this, and I’m not a morning person, so let me just say this: it wasn’t a bad book.  It just wan’t a good one, either.

Halloween Bingo Update, October 29; Another Halloween Bingo, done and dusted.

Well, the bingo gods strung me out to the very end, but with today’s call of Reclics and Curiosities my bingo card is complete and I have all the bingos.

I had a lot more fun with Bingo this year that I feared I would back in August, when my reading mojo, and just my overall life mojo was in a perilous state.

Taking a new approach to the game helped revive my enthusiasm to a degree, but by far the most uplifting and energising act I took was working with Christine and Themis-Athena to create a new, private site where the old BL gang could once again join together in an environment conducive to both games and general book conversations.  We’re all drowning in optimism now and I hope this is the start of a new era of bibliophilism for me.

Happy Halloween everyone!

Accumulative reading table with links to reviews below the card.

The spreadsheet:

Bingo Square Date Called Book Title Date Read
Row #1
X Mad Scientists and Evil Geniuses Sep. 7 Naked Brunch Aug. 30
X Stone Cold Horror/Creepy Carnival Sep. 29 Wild Ride Sep. 1
X Vintage Mystery Sep. 23 The Filigree Ball Sep. 16
X Dem Bones Oct. 2 Independent Bones Sep. 14
X Read by Candlelight/Flashlight Oct. 9 The Ex Hex Oct. 4
Row #2
X Murder Most Foul Oct. 11 Charleston Green Sep. 18
X Lethal Games Oct. 18 No Nest for the Wicket Sep. 1
X Spellbound Oct. 22 The Once and Future Witches Aug. 31
X Black Cat Sep. 15 Thornyhold Sep. 13
X Relics and Curiosities Oct. 30 On the Edge Sep. 8
Row #3
X Shifters Oct. 28 Naked Brunch Aug. 30
X Terror in a Small Town Oct. 14 Agnes and the Hitman Sep. 3
X FREE SPACE Like a Charm Sep. 7
X Psych / Highway to Hell Oct. 6 Archive of the Forgotten Sep. 3
X Truly Terrifying Oct. 1 The Cannonball Tree Mystery Sep. 5
Row #4
X Noir Sep. 24 The Big Over Easy Sep. 22
X Genre: Mystery Oct. 5 The Alchemist’s Illusion Sep. 2
X Country House Mystery Oct. 25 Murder Most Fair Sep. 16
X Tropical Terror Sep. 4 The Mimosa Tree Mystery Sep. 4
X Locked Room Mystery Sep. 28 Black Lizard’s Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries Oct. 5
Row #5
X Splatter Oct. 20 Carpe Jugulum Sep. 9
X Cryptozoologist Oct. 10 Bayou Moon Sep. 11
X Plague and Disease Scourged Sep. 3
X In the Dark, Dark Woods Oct. 17 Paper & Blood Sep. 12
X Gallows Humor Sep. 25 Murder Most Fowl Sep. 10
  Wild Card Spell
  Amplification Spell
  Bingo Flip Spell
  Cell Conversion Spell
  Transfiguration Spell
  Double Trouble Spell

Lord of the Far Island

Lord of the Far IslandLord of the Far Island
by Victoria Holt
Rating: ★★
isbn: 0600872114
Publication Date: January 1, 1975
Pages: 284
Genre: Historical, Romance, Suspense
Publisher: Companion Book Club

 

This was written in 1975.

This was a mantra of mine as I read this book.  Generally, I’m unaffected by dated material, or maybe not unaffected, but aware that reading the old stuff means a likelihood of butting up against outdated social mores, prejudices and attitudes, and I try not to let it colour my enjoyment of the story.

I could not do this with Lord of Far Island.  The romantic hero drove me plum crazy.

The book starts off slow, with Part 1 a very verbose retrospective of the MC, Ellen’s, life.  It’s almost entirely telling, rather than showing.  Part 2 gets a lot more interesting, as Ellen has been invited to Kellaway Island, a deliciously gothic island off the coast of Cornwall, complete with castle and all the gothic accessories.  The Kellaway’s are her father’s side of the family and a complete unknown to her.  There she meets the “Lord” of the island, Jago Kellaway, a many times removed cousin and the romantic hero.

Also, an utter prat.

I’ll get to the prat part later, because that’s where my inability to put aside the differences between when this was written and when I read it most strongly come into play.  I also had a hard time with this romance because of the cousin thing – which I can usually shrug off, but it kept coming up, keeping it at the forefront.  Even more creepy, in my estimation, was the fact that he kept referring to her as his ward.  She’s 20 and he’s “not much more than 30”, so everybody’s well beyond the age of consent.  But her father died and he named Jago her guardian until she turned 21, and he constantly introduced her as his ward, and reminded her he was her guardian and the whole thing just started to feel really creepy.

Did I mention Jago was a prat?  Well, he was.  I can’t explain it better than he can so here’s a few quotes:

“She’ll tell your fortune. I know you like having your fortune told. All women do.”

 

“That was a fortunate release, my darling. That’s how you’re going to see it.”

 

“You go too fast.  I have not yet said I will marry you.
This is perverse of you because you know as well as I do that you are going to.”

 

It turns out I don’t like my fictional MC’s being bossed around any more than I like being bossed around myself.

I suspect if I’d read this when I was far younger I’d have enjoyed it more, but there’s been too much water under the bridge, so to speak, for me to find Jago to be anything but a prat.

Murder at the Royal Botanic Garden’s (Wrexford & Sloane Mystery #5)

Murder at the Royal Botanic GardensMurder at the Royal Botanic Gardens
by Andrea Penrose
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9781496732507
Series: Wrexford & Sloane #5
Publication Date: September 28, 2021
Pages: 368
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Kensington

One advantage of being caught up in a whirl of dress fittings and decisions about flower arrangements and breakfast menus is that Charlotte Sloane has little time for any pre-wedding qualms. Her love for Wrexford isn’t in question. But will being a wife—and a Countess—make it difficult for her to maintain her independence—not to mention, her secret identity as famed satirical artist A.J. Quill?

Despite those concerns, there are soon even more urgent matters to attend to during Charlotte and Wrexford’s first public outing as an engaged couple. At a symposium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, a visiting botanist suffers a fatal collapse. The traces of white powder near his mouth reveal the dark truth—he was murdered. Drawn into the investigation, Charlotte and the Earl learn of the victim’s involvement in a momentous medical discovery. With fame and immense fortune at stake, there’s no shortage of suspects, including some whose ruthlessness is already known. But neither Charlotte nor her husband-to-be can realize how close the danger is about to get—or to what lengths this villain is prepared to go . . .


 

I still like this series, but what started out as a string of compelling mysteries is starting to lose its edge.  Blame it on the editor, reader feedback, or change of perspective on the part of the author, but the whole narrative has become entirely too idealistic to be reasonably realistic.  There was an excess of repetitive statements about the family you choose, the power of love, and an awful lot of lamenting over the death of an objectively heinous individual.  All of these ideals are wonderful and worth striving for, but considering the early 1800’s setting, I doubt very much they were worked quite so thoroughly into the mindset of anybody living at the time.  The result was a book that felt entirely too much like a religious genre novel.  Only with murder and (light) swearing.

What I did enjoy was the botanical setting of Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, and the impetus behind the plot being the race for a game-changing medicinal plant that enhances the effect of cinchona, or quinine, against malaria (plant being entirely fictional).  I really enjoyed the name drops of real historical figures, including Alexander von Humboldt – and was tickled to see the author recommend Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature in the story notes.

The plot was going rather well until I neared the end, when the author suddenly felt the need to work in a slave-trade angle that felt like a bolt from nowhere.  Looking at the story as a whole, it felt like the author needed to wrap up some loose ends from the previous book, needing to kill someone off while keeping the current book’s plot going.  I don’t know, but it just felt super clumsy.

I’ll read a 6th, should it appear, because I really do enjoy the cast of characters, but if this idealistic stuff continues to the point of incredulity, I’ll add this series to the “done for me” list.

The Haunting of America – DNF @ pg. 105

The Haunting of AmericaThe Haunting of America
by Joel Martin, William J. Birnes
Rating: ★★
Publication Date: September 15, 2009
Pages: 400
Genre: History, Non-fiction
Publisher: Forge

In the tradition of their Haunting of the Presidents, national bestselling authors Joel Martin and William J. Birnes write The Haunting of America: From The Salem Witch Trials to Harry Houdini, the only book to tell the story of how paranormal events influenced and sometimes even drove political events. In a narrative retelling of American history that begins with the Salem Witch Trials of the seventeenth century, Martin and Birnes unearth the roots of America's fascination with the ghosts, goblins, and demons that possess our imaginations and nightmares. The authors examine the political history of the United States through the lens of the paranormal and investigate the spiritual events that inspired public policy: channelers and meduims who have advised presidents, UFOs that frightened the nation's military into launching nuclear bomber squadrons toward the Soviet Union, out-of-body experiencers deployed to gather sensitive intelligence on other countries, and even spirits summoned to communicate with living politicians.

The Haunting of America is a thrilling exploration of the often unexpected influences of the paranormal on science, medicine, law, government, the military, psychology, theology, death and dying, spirituality, and pop culture.


 

How do you ruin a book with a name like that?  Wrap a textbook in it.

It might not actually be a bad book if one is looking for an anthropological view of superstition and paranormal belief and their effect on the American political system, but I was just looking for some fun and slightly spooky stories about haunting in America.  You know, what it says on the tin.

Ah well, another one off the TBR; progress is progress.

The Lost and Found Bookshop

The Lost and Found BookshopThe Lost and Found Bookshop
by Susan Wiggs
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9780008358754
Publication Date: September 16, 2020
Pages: 359
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: HarperCollins

Heartbroken Natalie Harper inherits her mother’s charming, cash-strapped bookshop and finds herself the carer for her ailing grandfather Andrew. She thinks it’s best to move him to an assisted-living home to ensure his care, but to pay for it, Natalie will have to sell up the bookshop. However, Grandpa Andrew owns the building and refuses to budge.

Moving into the studio apartment above the shop, Natalie hires a contractor, Peach Gallagher, to do some repairs. His young daughter becomes a regular at the shop, and she and Natalie begin reading together while Peach works. Slowly, Natalie’s sorrow begins to dissipate as her life becomes an unexpected journey of new friendships. From unearthing hidden artifacts in the bookshop’s walls, to learning the truth about her family, the bookshop is full of surprises. Can Natalie reveal her own heart’s desire and turn a new page…?


 

I’m in a general fiction sort of reading mood, and this book, my second attempt, was much better than the first (The Last Bookshop in London).  Although, it didn’t start out that way; this book is broken down into 6 parts and the first part is absolutely wretched.  The writing is solid, but the story is wretched.

Once the story moves into part 2, it becomes a more enjoyable read.  Natalie starts moving forward, Peach (sorry, I don’t care if you do look like a pirate, that nickname is ridiculous) starts working on the building and things move forward, albeit slowly.  This is a sedately paced story, though there are intermittent moments that are fun, like when they find stuff hidden in a wall, or out in an old shed.  The history of families, and of San Francisco, are threads that run through the book, woven through the plot, becoming pivotal to the resolution.  I’ve only ever spent a day in San Francisco, but I swear the bookstore in this story was smack in the middle of our self-created walking tour, as I kept recognising landmarks and places the author dropped into the text, an occurrence I always enjoy.

Overall, an enjoyable read if you can get past the first part and like a general fiction sort of book.  It has a happy ending and there’s a very small but potent romance that takes almost the entire book to develop.  I’m not altogether sure Andrew’s altruism is entirely realistic; I’d like to believe it’s possible but given the pressure the author puts him and Natalie under, it’s sadly improbable.  Still, I like books that show us our best possible selves (penchant for murder mysteries aside), so it didn’t really hinder my ability to buy into the story, although it did occur to me that by the end, around the clock security would probably be necessary to ward off the treasure hunters.